Motivation Formula & How to Use It – Part 1

Motivation Formula & How to Use It – Part 1

When my daughter Betsy was in middle school, she told me through a flood of tears that she was sure she had no self-motivation. She couldn't make herself do things she didn't want to do.

Yep, that's the message I'd inadvertently been sending: making yourself do things you don't want to do IS self-motivation. Of course, I was applying it to myself as well, and it led to a lot of anger and frustration, especially on cleaning day. Cleaning day in my house was no fun for anyone!

Turns out that she and I had been missing the point. While making yourself do something you don't want to do may be a good way to practice self-control or even determination, it is not how self-motivation works.

After years of observing how children (and we as adults) work, it finally dawned on me that self-motivation, like all human motivation, works like this:

Want + Possible = Action

That's my simple motivation formula.

Surprised? So was Betsy when, after using SAY WHAT YOU SEE to validate what she believed and how helpless she felt when facing a task like cleaning her room, I pointed out her HIDDEN STRENGTH of self-motivation. Betsy loved to read. She had actually read every book on her floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, some books more than once for no other reason than she wanted to. That's pure, internally generated motivation.

Wanting to do something is our natural motivation; whether or not we take action depends on how possible what we want seems. 

Think about it. When was the last time you did something you didn't want to do? Why did you do it? If your answer is, "Because I had to or else _______," you probably struggled all the way through that task or at best did it with a feeling of resignation. Avoiding unpleasant consequences can feel like motivation but it will also feel external and forced. As I said, you can practice self-control or experience your determination that way, but not the ease and joy of true self-motivation.

To experience your self-motivation in any task, try connecting with something you want on the other side of the task. For example, I spent years griping at my bathroom sink for making me clean it regularly "because I HAD TO or else it would grow mold." Cleaning it and my house became so much easier when I started to focus on the end result and realized that why I was really cleaning was "because I WANTED a shiny sink and clean floors." The more I focused on what I wanted, the easier cleaning became. I love a clean house. That's why I clean. Period. The "or else" reason was my substitute for self-motivation until I got back in touch with my own. 

If that's not enough, look at the opposite. What things can you just not make yourself do, regardless of the reasons you have for why you should? My guess is that you can't see anything you want in doing those things OR you don't think what you want is possible. If it's the former, and you really don't want to do something, no way, no how, never, then you may be right that it's not yours to do. If it's the latter, that you don't think what you want is possible, contact one of our coaches now! Some way, somehow, everything is possible.

While Betsy was a bit skeptical when I pointed out "wanting" as her innate self-motivation, she liked it. So when it was time for her to clean her room, we talked about what she wanted her room to look like. When she could envision it and knew where to start (CAN DO), it became possible and even seemed easy, so she naturally took action.

After her room was the way she wanted it, I validated all the things she liked about her clean room—she could walk without breaking things that might be hidden under clothes on the floor, she could find her necklaces when they were hanging neatly on her rack, etc.

I knew that connecting her with her love of a clean space and giving her the skills to make that possible were the two things I could send with her into the future. To me, this was the point, not whether or not her room stayed clean. I did the same for her sister, Colleen, and years later, they, like me, do not always keep a clean house, but when they want it clean, it gets done.

And one more thing about kids. Until age 26 or so when adolescence is complete, kids live far more in the "now" than we do. While they can think ahead and even plan, the future is not nearly as real to them as it is to us. We live almost entirely in the future, and have to remind ourselves that what is real is in the here and now, not in our heads. Stepping into your child's world with SAY WHAT YOU SEE can help you bring the benefits of both together for your child.

When you look around your child's messy room in the "now," it can seem as overwhelming to you as it does to them, which will make it easier to see why helping your middle-schooler step into the future a little at a time is what is needed. That might mean helping them envision what they want and know they can do in the next two minutes—like a neatly made bed, or clothes in the hamper, or one other thing at a time.

Breaking things down into short-term visions is basically what you do when cleaning a room or tackling any big task, whether you are aware of it or not. Check it out next time you do one of your chores, and see if envisioning what you WANT makes it easier.

Helping kids recognize that "want + possible = action" is really how they work is the best coaching you can provide. If they resist the envisioning exercise about cleaning their room (which they might if they feel like they are or have been forced to clean it), start with something they are happy to say they want, like playing a game. Have them envision it, and feel how hard it is for them to hold back when they know it is possible. Once kids get this formula, they can use it to help them do things they know they need to do the rest of their lives, as long as they can find something they want in it, or just beyond.  

Helping our kids (and ourselves) stay in touch with what they want and making sure they know anything is possible is built into the three-part Language of Listening® coaching model. You can learn more about how it works by reading the online version of my handbook free, SAY WHAT YOU SEE®, and taking my online video-based Basic Coaching Skills Course.

Related Post: Motivation Formula - Part 2: When Kids Don't Care About a Clean Room


  1. Delphine |

    This is really helpful, I can totally relate to “because I want a clean sink & mirror!” as that’s the only thing that has helped me clean recently.
    I’m having trouble translating this to work, for something like writing up my yearly objectives… I most certainly don’t want to and don’t see the point, and I don’t find motivation in “I want to keep my job…”
    For kids though, how do you motivate if they don’t care about a clean room?

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